Worried that public schools are failing to prepare students for a complex and changing world, educators Tuesday called for sweeping changes in the way science is taught in the United States, emphasizing hands-on learning and critical scrutiny of scientific evidence.
Known as the "Next Generation Science Standards," the guidelines mark the first time that anything close to national principles for science education have been developed. They were devised to combat widespread scientific ignorance, standardize teaching among disparate states and raise the number of high school graduates who choose scientific and technical majors in college, a critical issue for the country's economic welfare.
California is one of several states expected to give the standards serious consideration. The state Board of Education is likely to discuss the issue at its July meeting and could consider adopting them as early as November.
"In the next decade, the number of jobs requiring highly technical skills is expected to outpace other occupations," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a statement Tuesday. "These Next Generation Science Standards will help students achieve real-world practical skills so they can help maintain California's economic and technological leadership in the world."
In a move that could prove controversial, the guidelines call for introducing the science of climate change into the curriculum starting in middle school, and teaching high school students in detail about the effects of human activity on climate. Groups critical of mainstream science thinking have criticized this step.
The guidelines also take a firm stand that children must learn about evolution, the central organizing idea in the biological sciences for more than a century, but one that has rallied state lawmakers and some religious conservatives to insist that alternative notions like intelligent design be taught.
Though 26 states representing well over half the U.S. population have committed to giving serious consideration to formal adoption of the guidelines, and at least a dozen more states are expected to study the guidelines closely, there is no guarantee that the standards will be adopted in any state.
The central thrust of the guidelines, which were devised in collaboration with a national association of science teachers, scientists and federal science agencies, is to move teachers away from simply presenting scientific facts in the classroom and expecting children to memorize them.
The focus instead would be on learning how science is done: how ideas are developed and tested, what counts as strong or weak evidence and how insights from many scientific disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world.
"We're going to go from teaching kids how to memorize terms to giving kids hands-on, 21st century learning," said Muhammed Chaudhry, President and CEO for the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has long advocated for more robust instruction in math and science. "There's a strong emphasis on engineering, which is huge for the Valley."
With the guidelines, educators foresee more use of real-world examples, like taking students to a farm or fish hatchery to help them learn principles of biology, chemistry and physics.
They want students to learn to construct at least basic versions of scientific models -- the simplified representations of reality that undergird tasks as diverse as building a skyscraper that will not collapse, designing a drug to treat illness and accurately predicting the effects of global warming.
And they want to introduce students to topics that can be made comprehensible only by drawing on the ideas and methods of many scientific disciplines.
Several educators said in interviews that pulling all that off in U.S. schoolhouses will be no small task.
Many states are likely to adopt the guidelines over the next year, but it could be years before the guidelines are translated into detailed curriculum documents and specific lesson plans, teachers are trained or retrained in the material and centralized tests are revised.
And all of this has to happen at a time when state education departments and many local schools are under severe financial strain.
"You can't do education on the cheap," said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based group that counters efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution and climate science. "Teachers are going to need some help in mastering this approach."
Bay Area News Group staff writer Dana Hull contributed to this story.
Among the highlights of the Next Generation Science Standards:
1. The standards identify content and science and engineering practices that all students should learn from kindergarten to high school graduation and take into account the latest research on how students best learn science.
2. The standards call for introducing the science of climate change into the curriculum starting in middle school, and teaching high school students in detail about the effects of human activity on climate. The guidelines also take a firm stand that children must learn about evolution.
3. The development of the standards was led by several states, the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association and others. California is among the states expected to adopt the standards.
For more information, go to: http://www.nextgenscience.org/